TUCSON, ARIZ. – Easter Sunday, 1983. Arizona baseball coach Jerry Kindall walks through the lobby of a Wilshire Boulevard hotel a few hours before a series finale at UCLA. He is met in a small anteroom by 10 or 12 ballplayers for a brief devotional and prayer.
When the schedule allows, this has been a Sunday routine during Kindall’s first 10 seasons as Arizona’s baseball coach.
A bus idles in front of the hotel with the rest of Arizona’s team and coaches. When the meeting ends, Kindall walks through the lobby, in full uniform, No. 7 on the back of his jersey, and is met by the school’s sports information director for baseball.
“Mike,” he says, “I understand you are having a difficult time. Let’s talk about it.”
The media relations man nods. He is going through a divorce.
“It’s tough,” he says.
Kindall instructs the bus driver to leave for the ballpark. He and the sports information man return to the small room. I’m standing nearby.
“Greg,” he says, “I’m going to meet with Mike for a while. Can you wait and give us a ride?”
I sit in the hotel lobby for almost 90 minutes. It’s 11 a.m. First pitch is at noon. When Kindall returns, we get in my rental car and drive 20 minutes to Jackie Robinson Stadium. As we park, Kindall turns and says, “Please don’t write about this. Let’s just keep it about baseball.”
The first thing about Jerry Kindall is that it is never just about baseball. It is always about life. It is always about you or me or the guy next door. It is not about the Hall of Famer in jersey No. 7.
“He is the nicest man I’ve ever met in my life,” says Wes Clements, who played first base for Kindall’s 1980 national championship team. “I love him dearly.”
Recently, when a man from Kindall’s Tucson church was imprisoned in Safford, Ariz., Kindall made the 200-mile round trip two or three times a month to offer comfort and counsel.
When a former Chicago Cubs clubhouse employee moved into an assisted living facility on Tucson’s east side, Kindall borrowed a book about baseball from former Arizona assistant coach Court Hall.
“Jerry would read the book to Tommy every week,” Hall says. “By the time Jerry returned a week later, Tommy couldn’t remember any of it, so Jerry would just read it to him all over again.”
A week ago, Kindall visited his former pitching coach Jim Wing in a seniors’ facility in Tucson. The two men led Arizona to the 1976, 1980 and 1986 College World Series championships. They have been inseparable, best friends forever. But when the 82-year-old Kindall left, Wing was concerned.
“I think Jerry’s failing a little bit,” he told a friend. “And JK doesn’t fail.”
On Thursday of last week, Gerald Donald Kindall, the Most Outstanding Player of the 1956 College World Series, the son of a truck driver and railroad man from St. Paul, suffered a major stroke. He died Sunday night at Tucson Medical Center.
By noon Sunday, longtime Arizona hitting coach Jerry Stitt, who became Kindall’s successor in 1997, had communicated with scores of former Wildcat baseball players.
“It’s amazing,” Stitt says. “One after another after another. People from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s.”
If you wonder where Jerry Kindall got his compassion for people and his will for doing the right thing, you don’t have to look far.
Kindall signed a $50,000 bonus contract with the Chicago Cubs soon after he led the Gophers to the 1956 national championship. He did so, in part, because his parents needed the money. His stepmother, Isabel, incapacitated by multiple sclerosis, had been in a wheelchair since Jerry was 12. His father, Harold, drove a truck from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then worked a shift at the railroad five nights a week.
“My father, who had been an outstanding ballplayer himself, worked two jobs so that my two brothers and I could go to college and follow our dreams,” Kindall said in September while alerting me to a book written by Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune. “I’ve always had a lot for which to be thankful.”
Not that there hasn’t been significant adversity in Kindall’s life.
When Arizona won its 1986 national championship, Kindall’s college sweetheart, Georgia Nelson Kindall, was herself in a wheelchair. She was in the final stages of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease. They married in 1956, a month after Kindall led the Gophers to the College World Series title over, of all teams, Arizona.
After celebrating Arizona’s third national championship, Georgia died a year later. She was only 52.
Hall, who helped coach the Wildcats from 1976 to 1980, and his wife, Lynn, have been close friends to Kindall and his second wife, Diane, for the past 25 years. Hall arranged for Kindall to conduct baseball clinics and coach European teams. They became regular dinner companions and traveled together internationally.
The couples met two weeks ago at Kindall’s house. Hall noticed that Jerry’s memory lapsed and that he had hurt one of his legs in a fall; things not unusual for someone 82.
“It struck me because Jerry has always been a really strong, tall person, the epitome of a great leader,” Hall said. “He made many big decisions in his life, and he made them stoically. This time, something was different. I feared something might be wrong.”
By Christmas Eve, Kindall’s four children and had traveled to Tucson to be by his side. Dozens of his former players, which includes 36 major leaguers from J.T. Snow to Terry Francona, expressed concern.
“If I could share with you some of these texts from our former players,” Stitt said, his voice breaking. “It just makes you cry.”